SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain– Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who delivered the biggest French-language hit ever with the Omar-Sy starrer “Intouchables” ($426 million worldwide) in 2011, fired up this year’s San Sebastian fest with the European premiere of “Samba” on closing night. In the well-polished social comedy, Sy plays Samba, a hard-working Senegalese migrant whose life is turned upside down after getting caught by authorities. Pic, which is produced by Quad Films, centers around Samba’s unlikely relationship and building romance with Alice, a social worker (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is recovering from a burn-out. Sold by Gaumont, “Samba” sparked standing ovations at both Toronto, where it world-premiered, and at San Sebastian. Kicking off the European tour to promote the movie, Toledano and Nakache took time to chat with Variety about the genesis of “Samba,” what the film means to them, their collaboration with Sy and Gainsbourg, and what they look forward to in France and beyond. Broad Green will distribute “Samba” in the U.S., while Gaumont will release it in France on Oct. 15.
What type of offers did you get after “Intouchables” and why did you chose to follow up with “Samba”?
Eric Toledano: After “Intouchables” we got flooded with all kind of offers. We were approached by companies like Working Title… We could have gone in many different directions but ultimately we decided to make a coherent next step, stay true to ourselves and go with a smaller, more personal film like “Samba.”
How did you come up with the idea for “Samba”?
E.T.: We were thinking of making a film about a migrant character like Samba for a while because we’ve often wondered what’s in the minds of people who on the margins; for instance the busboys or dishwashers you see smoking a cigarette in the back streets, behind restaurants. We wondered what they lives are like. So we wrote roughly 10 pages about this topic and kept it in mind. Then when I met Muriel Coulin at the Unifrance Rendez-Vous in New York and I casually told her about our idea. She recommended me to read her sister Delphine’s book, “Samba pour la France.” And that was the start of the adventure.
How did you collaborate with Delphine and Muriel Coulin on the script?
Olvier Nakache: They have a background in auteur films and it was very interesting to have them as co-writers. They brought something different and helped us a give Charlotte’s more depth. Olivier and I are traditionally more comfortable writing male characters so it was great to have their input.
It’s interesting to watch Charlotte Gainsbourg in a role like this one after seeing her in Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac”!
E.T.: All the characters are cast against type. Omar for instance is used to comedy roles, and in Samba he delivers a more contained performance. Meanwhile, Tahar Rahim is used to play more introverted characters, and there he’s playing a very colorful, funny guy who pretends to be Brazilian; and with Charlotte’s character we tried to create a similar surprise.
Why did you think of Charlotte Gainsbourg for this part?
O.N.: She’s kind of an icon. We grew up watching her sing with her father (Serge Gainsbourg), she broke through in “L’effrontée” (“An Impudent Girl”) by Claude Miller and won a Cesar. Throughout her career she has always made singular choices. She has an originality and a style that both Olivier and I admire.
E.T.: And she’s also done comedy, notably Alain Chabat’s “Prete-moi ta main” (“I Do”) and her husband Yvan Attal’s movies such as “My Wife is an Actress;” so we knew she could pull it off. We like actors who are versatile.
How did the first meeting between Omar Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg go?
E.T.: When Omar and Charlotte first met, we could sense some shyness and a bit of awkwardness so we played it up in the film. They have a natural yet unusual chemistry. It was an attractive idea to bring them together. In France we often see the same onscreen couples, and it makes us feel that we watching the same movies over and over. In Samba, we seeked to bring an originality, go off the beaten path.
You’ve never tried romantic comedies before. How did you tackle it?
O.N.: We didn’t want the movie to be locked into one genre. So we mixed different subgenre: situational comedy, romantic comedy and social comedy.
E.T.: But inevitably, we also followed certain codes of the romantic comedy: for instance when Charlotte runs across the train station – you almost always see a character running in an airport in romcom – and something also happens right before Charlotte and Omar exchange their first kiss; that’s also a classic.
In the movie, Charlotte Gainsbourg is somewhat of a female version of Hugh Grant’s character in Working Title comedies, isn’t she?
E.T.: Yes, exactly — in “Notting Hill” for instance. There are also many references to social comedies in “Samba.” We just sense that nowadays, audiences need to experience a full range of emotions to appreciate a movie and get entertained, so we like to bend genre and mix things up.
Why didn’t you want to give “Samba” a romcom-type ending?
E.T.: We wanted to stay truthful to the subject, show the reality of “Samba”’s routine doing some very harsh jobs like sorting garbage or scaffolding. We’re not turning a blind eye on what he goes through. We intentionally ended the movie on an ambivalent note. We hoped to give people a glimpse into a world they know little or nothing about.
O.N.: As we showed with “Intouchables” we think it’s possible to deal with serious, though subjects in an entertaining way. Audiences should also be able to relax in front of a movie dealing with a difficult subject.
American or Italian comedies accomplish that by injecting humor in heartfelt dramas, or balancing out tragic scenes and situations with sharp, satirical humor.
E.T.: Yes, American, Italian and British films do that very well. From the U.K. you have “Pride,” which we both loved, and cult movies like “The Full Monty,” “Les Virtuoses.” The British know how to make comedies grounded in a social context.
The subject of immigration is rarely dealt with in French comedies and it’s definitely a hot topic these days with the rise of the far-right party. Did you take this factor into consideration when you decided to make this movie?
E.T.: Not really. And we didn’t want to make a big comedy full of laugh-out-loud jokes about immigration either. The comedy comes naturally from the situations we depict which at times are bolderline Kafka-esque. We reached that same balance with “Intouchables” and it worked. Immigration is a tough subject to deal with in all of Europe and we stand by our decision to tackle complex subjects and set ourselves some challenges. We’re not just there to make politically-correct films.
But at the same time, I heard that you didn’t necessarily want people to perceive “Samba” solely as an immigration movie. Why is that?
O.N.: Immigration is not the only theme of the film. We think there is also another way to see the movie that is linked to the world of employment. Charlotte’s character experienced a burn-out, Samba has to fake his identity to find work. We’re looking at work issues from the top and and the bottom of the social ladder.
The film looks particularly well-documented and well-sourced. How did you work on the research?
E.T.: When you approach a subject like this one you are obligated to do a real investigative work. It’s imperative. So we went to detention centers, we met many people. And the book was already a great material because it described places and people very accurately. All the characters in the film are inspired by people we met or read about in the book. And the story lends itself well to a film: you have people disguising themselves , hiding, dressing up and talking like another person, taking accents , etc.
You gave Omar Sy his first lead role in “Intouchables” after working with him on various films such as “Tellement Proches” and “Nos Jours Heureux” and now he’s an international star. What did you see in him from the start and how has his work evolved throughout the years?
O.N.: In the industry, there has always been duos of actors-directors, and with Omar we form such a trio. He’s an incredibly luminous, wholesome person. And we happen to have a fruitful relationship with him, we’re on the same wavelength. His acting is also getting stronger and stronger; we can get him to play very different characters and push the limits more than ever.
“Samba” got standing ovations at both Toronto and San Sebastian. What kind of commercial potential do you think the movie holds?
E.T.: We’ve been impressed by the rock-star popularity of Omar, and the enthusiasm of people who discovered the movie at Toronto, San Sebastian and at sneak premieres throughout France and just recently in Geneva. It seems that the “Intouchables” effect is still alive! But “Samba” is a very different movie than “Intouchables.” It’s got a different kind of humor, a different story, it’s also shot differently. So we can’t compare it with “Intouchables” and reallistically expect it to gross as much at the box office.
What’s next for you? Are you interested in making an English-language movie?
E.T.: Yes, we feel ready to open up to new possibilities, explore new settings and discover talent. We’re represented by CAA and are very close to Roeg Sutherland. We’re interested in making a movie in the U.S. or the U.K.. We’re big fans of British comedies. We’re definitely game for a big change.
Would you like to get Omar Sy on board if you make a film in English?
O.N. With Omar it will depend on the project. He just shot a movie with Bradley Cooper in London and he’s got a full slate of projects. But we’ll obviously work with him again!